NASCAR Chase has caught up to Jimmie Johnson

Nov 4 2010 - 7:32pm

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Does Jimmie Johnson sweat?

He's got to. He's human, right? He doesn't like anybody's hot breath on his neck any more than anybody else.

But NASCAR had to wonder. Over the past four seasons, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet has knocked out championships like a machine. One right after the other. Same style, same precision.

Cool. Calm. Boss.

No one has knocked Johnson off his game in a four-year championship run that began in 2006. Hardly anyone has even gotten a shot.

But then, no one has been as close as they are now.

Denny Hamlin is 14 points back, and Kevin Harvick is 38 points behind the four-time champion as the three series leaders arrive at Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday's AAA Texas 500. It is the closest the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been at this point in its seven-year history.

You feel that, Jimmie?

"He's got to feel pressure," said Harvick, who took his No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet to second place last week at Talladega Superspeedway. "There's more to it than there has been in the last couple of Chases. The thing that's happened this time is we 8haven't let him get too far away. And the No. 11 is right there with him."

Hamlin's No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota is indeed right there with the leader, and this week, ought to be feeling right at home. Hamlin beat Johnson to the finish line at TMS in April and was second to Kurt Busch here in last year's November race.

But TMS' 1 1/2-mile oval has also been good for Harvick and Johnson.

Harvick has the worst average finish (12.9) of the three at TMS, but he was seventh in April and fifth last November.

Johnson won here in November 2007 and was second in April '08 and April '09.

It's possible the race to the top is no more settled after the AAA Texas 500 than it is now.

It's almost what Johnson expects. Yes, he feels the pressure. He knows two guys are close.

"It's really the same mentality. We need maximum points," he said after finishing seventh at Talladega. "Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."

Harvick and Hamlin have the advantage of being the hunters and not the hunted.

But Johnson's steady performance -- he's been seventh or better in every Chase race except the opener at New Hampshire -- leaves them no room for error.

"With what those guys have done over the last four years, it was important for us -- the 29 and the 11 -- to go out and knock out those top-5s and not make any mistakes," Harvick said. "We've gone through seven races, and you can throw a blanket over the three of us. It's really going to just come down to dotting the I's, crossing the T's, keeping that performance level where it needs to be. If it's your off week, you're in trouble."

There are three races left, but in a sense, it's only two for anybody chasing Johnson because he is so strong at Phoenix, which follows TMS.

Starting with last year's race, Johnson has been third, first, fourth, first, first and first in his past six starts at Phoenix International Raceway's one-mile tri-oval.

That has set him up for a no-pressure closer at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But this doesn't look like one of those years.

"That's the way I'm going to prepare for it," Johnson said. "The way it's going, I better be prepared for that. If I'm not, then we aren't doing our jobs..... Coming to Homestead, if we need to race for this thing, which I'm pretty confident we're going to have to, then we'll have a good shot at it."

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